Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Developing character

I think Charles Schultz must have read Paul's letter to the Romans:  "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."  Romans 5: 3-5

Friday, December 23, 2011

Forgiveness 2.0?

I have been reading Brian Zahnd's book UNconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, which at first glance on the library bookshelf, looked like an excellent read.  After all, Miroslav Volf wrote the foreword and there's an endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the front cover.  And with the word 'radical' in the title I buckled up for an exhilarating ride.

I agree with the whole premise, that in order for forgiveness to be healing and transformative, that it must be unconditional.  Which also means the degree of sin does not matter.  Radical enough so far.  However, Zahnd posits unconditional forgiveness as a uniquely Christian virtue/teaching, as given to us from Christ on the cross:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I agree that if those of us who call ourselves 'Christian' are truly going to follow Jesus, then we need to be unconditionally forgiving.  But to tout Christianity as the religion that teaches and espouses radical forgiveness is hubris.  What we certainly do not need is more Christian triumphalism, which Zahnd decries in the preface.

He writes:
"Of course there is cheap forgiveness that is worthless and an affront to justice.  Essentially, the Buddhist position is that evil is a nonexistent illusion, so there really is nothing to forgive.  This is nothing like the Christian position.  Christian forgiveness is not a cheap denial of the reality of evil or the trite sloganeering of 'forgive and forget'."
I'm wondering, given his Pentecostal background--I'm not sure he truly understands the 'Buddhist position'.  To get to that place of nonexistent illusion, one must meditate and practice a lifetime of detachment and compassion, which takes a great deal of discipline.  There is nothing cheap about it.

He also implies that the law of Moses is improved upon by Jesus, implying a lower status to the Ten Commandments and the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
"In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is making an implicit claim to speak with the same authority as the One who gave the Law at Mount Sinai.  Jesus was saying that the Law given at Mount Sinai was being countermanded (italics mine) by the sermon given at the Mount of Beatitudes."
Stating that Jesus expanded the Law of Moses might have been a better choice of words. Even so, I'm not sure many Jews would be heartened to hear it.

In fact I think that his holiness the Dalai Lama might have it all over Zahnd.  In his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for Whole World, his holiness writes that religion is not necessary to cultivate compassion.  Jesus said that we are to love our enemies and forgive them, which seems to me to be a radical form of compassion.

"...[Extended], universal compassion is not rooted in any self-regarding element, but rather in the simple awareness that all others are human beings, who, just like oneself, aspire to happiness and shun suffering.  With this kind of compassion, our feeling of concern for others is completely stable and unaffected by the attitude they may have toward us.  Even if others threaten or verbally abuse us, our compassion for them, our concern for their welfare, remains.  Genuine compassion, therefore, is directed not at people's behavior but at the people themselves."
 Our Western, Christian-based notion of forgiveness has a great deal to do with ego, which is why Jesus' call to radical forgiveness can be so difficult for many.  We still think in terms of worthiness and entitlement, often withholding our forgiveness because the offending party has not, will not or cannot apologize or repent or atone for the pain they have caused.  Yet both compassion and forgiveness are neither earned nor deserved.  And when we get down to it, both may lift up and heal another but it is through them that our own hearts are saved and made whole.

True, I have just begun both books--a habit of mine: reading more than one book at once.  Both promise to discuss justice in later chapters.  Still, the first few chapters, I think, give the overall impression of the author's viewpoint.  And when it comes to forgiveness or compassion, there can be nothing unique about them, except how each of us lives out this radical call in our own lives.

So, Brian, this could be a lesson in forgiveness for me, in that I was frustrated and angered by some of your words.  But in truth, there is nothing to forgive.  You are a human being, like me, trying to find your way in this world by following the Way of Jesus.  And though Jesus calls us to embrace suffering rather than shun it, we usually fail miserably.  And so we have the need for radical compassion.  And so I thank you for your words, for like that Serbian Orthodox priest of whom you wrote, you have pushed me closer to compassion and closer to Jesus:  "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" I have much farther to go in following this wisdom.

Here is an example of radical compassion from the animal kingdom, from the Pocatello Zoo in Idaho:

Elk saves marmot

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's not socialism--it's the kingdom of God

The first Sunday in November our interim senior minister preached on the workers in the vineyard, from Matthew 20.

From The Message by Eugene Peterson:

"God's kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work. Later, about nine o'clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, 'Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?'

They said, 'Because no one hired us.'

He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, 'Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.'

Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.'

He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?'

Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first."

Many Americans do not like socialism because they think it's unfair. "Why should I pay more taxes so everyone can have healthcare and an education, whether they work or not?" Many of us like living in a meritocracy: we earned it, therefore we deserve it, we're entitled to it.

I would bet that most folks who enjoy this lifestyle also think they have to earn their way into heaven as well. "I give to my church and I pray every day and read my Bible and I've even served the poor. I've made mistakes but I know I'm forgiven through God's grace." But is God's grace also for that Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, atheist, gay, prostitute who had an abortion, who cheated on his wife, who's addicted to alcohol and drugs, who's indefinitely incarcerated for being an illegal immigrant, who's on death row for murder, who just got out of prison for molesting children?

Folks, we'd like to think that we're the ones who showed up first, who agreed to that daily wage in the early morning and thought we were going to get more. In truth, we are all johnny-come-lately's. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us deserves any of this, the good or the bad. Yet God is generous with us anyway. So why should we be stingy with this extravagant love that has been lavished upon us?

But then there's the question of why should we be good at all? If God's grace is for everyone, even the most heinous of sinners, why should we love and give and forgive others?

I don't know about you, but when I'm giving to others without a second thought to myself (and it doesn't happen often enough), that is when I feel truly alive, when I feel as though I am living the way I was intended to live. And when I forgive and accept someone as they are, I feel as though a huge weight has been lifted from my heart, setting both us free.

It isn't socialism, it's something better. It's called love.

"Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end."

 --from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message by Eugene Peterson

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Time for an image shift

I just finished reading Rob Bell's book Love Wins.  At first glance I thought it would be a post-modern, evangelically emergent take on Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland's superb book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person.  And to a certain degree it is.  It's written in brief paragraphs, the kind used by pastors when preaching a Sunday sermon, with the appearance of an epic poem.  On some days the story of faith is rather like an epic poem.  He uses stories from his own life and from folks who worship at the church he pastors.  He puts interesting spins on Bible stories and passages we think we know up and down.  As USA Today puts it: "One of the nation's rock-star-popular young pastors, Rob Bell, has stuck a pitchfork in how Christians talk about damnation.” Which is a relief, as most evangelicals have been using that pitchfork when speaking of salvation and what's required for it.

But when Rob Bell speaks about hell, when he takes away the abuse but leaves the sting of it and puts it in its place, he says nothing of the hell inflicted on others, the hell that we do not choose but has been chosen for us by those in power.  He says nothing about oppression, injustice, and the hell prisons that the powerless have been locked in and struggle to break loose from.  Hell on earth may be the consequences we suffer as a result of our own actions, but what of the hell on earth that is suffered as a result of the actions of others?  How does an abused woman take responsibility for her own hell?  How does she learn to trust the love a father God?

I posted this on Rob Bell's Facebook wall, which I think he doesn't even read, judging by the comments:
"I have deep concerns about the chapter "The Good News is Better Than That": the story you begin with about an abused woman and then you go on to tell the 'stories' of the father and his two sons. Why should a woman who's been hit by every man she's been with now trust the retelling of her story by a God who is male? We still continue to shape God as male and that definitely shapes some of us women in a way that is not only helpful but hurts."
I then received 7 comments declaring that God does not have a penis or reproductive organs and therefore I should not be offended, that God is Father in the Bible or that God isn't male but identifies himself that way or that we in our small minds can't know who God is, so God reveals God's self as Father but God isn't male.
Huh?  Last time I checked, my daughters' father is a male.
Jesus did a radical thing by calling God 'Father'.  Jesus brought close the Creator of the Universe, the One who fashioned the earth and the heavens--YHWH, I Am Who I Am, the ineffable.  The Church brought God even closer by declaring that Jesus was God in human form, the Word incarnate.  What has happened in the two millennia since then is that we have personalized God.  We have brought God so close that we think we know who God is.  We've rendered God powerless by thinking we have a handle on who God is.  Thus, we can also reject this God and walk away without a second thought.
We need another image shift in our relationship with God.  Not male, not female.  Jesus brought God close; now it's time to back up a bit and see the bigger picture.
Panentheism:  from the Greek pan (all), en (in), theos (God)--All in God.  "Everything is in God and God is in everything, but God is more than everything" (Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, 1828).  Or as it says in the Book of Acts: "In [God] we live and move and have our being."  Native Americans called it the Great Spirit.  Ancient hunter-gatherer societies worshiped the great Mother Goddess.  George Lucas called it the Force.  Australian Aborigines speak to Divine Oneness.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to God as "the Beyond that is in our midst".  Immanence and transcendence.  No names, no gender.  All names, all genders.  More and more.
Interestingly enough, Rob Bell made a short film entitled "She", about the feminine characteristics of God, about how we cannot understand God until we recognize the feminine qualities that God possesses.  I just wish he had used the Isaiah passage he mentions, regarding God having compassion like a mother, when he introduced his chapter with the story of the abused woman.  It would have been so much better.  Then he could have given his different take on the father and the two sons.
Here's the film:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Human need over corporate greed

I was hungry and you blamed it on the Communists.
I was hungry and you circled the moon.
I was hungry and you told me to wait.
I was hungry and you set up a commission.
I was hungry and you said, "so were my ancestors."
I was hungry and you said, "we don't hire over 35."
I was hungry and you said, "God helps those..."
I was hungry and you told me I shouldn't be.
I was hungry and you told me machines do that work now.
I was hungry and you had napalm bills to pay.
I was hungry and you said the poor are always with us.
Lord, when did we see you hungry?  (Matthew 25: 37)

Thank you, Sojourners.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ten good reasons not to call me as your next pastor

(Another section in my profile requires me not only to give references but to give myself one as well.  I borrowed this idea from another pastor who had posted their own good reasons on a consulting website.  The way I look at it, this list will tell a search committee if they want to invest time and resources to interview me or not.  I know what I want and I don't want to settle for less.)

1.     If you believe that worship is the most important thing you do as a church and that it only occurs on Sunday morning, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

2.     If you value new people as workers and pledge units rather than as welcomed agents of change and companions along the Way, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

3.    If you’re looking for someone who does not share some of the same common weaknesses and foibles as you do, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

4.    If you think that being Open and Affirming is the final frontier of Christian witness, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

5.    If mission is something that occurs only on a trip or once a month, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

6.    If ministry is something that can be measured, quantified, strategized, programmed and categorized, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

7.     If the idea of creating art, poetry, and music alongside the poor and outcast shrinks your spirit rather than enlarging it, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

8.    If you’re searching for an expert to teach you how rather than a fellow student to learn with, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

9.    If the phrase “Life is messy—love it” fills you with more fear than trust, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

10.     If laughter and humor aren't regular and highly-prized expressions of your life together, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

This is the church I want to serve

The following is from my Statement on Ministry, one part of my ministerial profile:

When Jesus revealed the Way of ministry, he was very direct and brief:  “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6: 37); “Let the children come to me” (Luke 18: 16); “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26: 26); “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34); “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Luke 8: 8); “Go, make disciples…” (Matt. 28: 19); “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44); “…love one another” (John 13: 34); “Feed my sheep” (John 21: 17).  These could be the purpose statement of any local church.  But more than that these verses are spiritual practices:  the bedrock of ministry and faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

I believe that it is our spiritual practices, our faithfulness that saves us each and every day.  And what I mean by “saves” is that we are pried off our tendency to focus solely on ourselves in any given moment.  Ministry is about learning those spiritual practices and sharing them with others, not only for ourselves but that lives may be changed and transformed, that we might do justice and make peace with one another, that the unconditional love of God would be made visible and tangible.

The next frontier of the church will be those who consider the church to be irrelevant but who still want to make a difference and are working for change in the world.  What can unite believers and non-believers are the spiritual practices common to many traditions such as meditation, serving others, feeding the hungry, extending hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, and moving others to do likewise and more.

In our Christian tradition the pendulum of salvation swings between its two foci of faith and the practices of faith.  There are phases we go through where faith alone, belief that a power greater than ourselves, can save us.  Other times we are caught up in the practices of faith—worship, service, prayer, study, giving, hospitality—and we are saved, released from self-absorption, by the doing of them. 

The apostle Paul tells us that we are saved by grace alone, that works/practices alone will not save us, nor will faith without works.  We need both but even then it is only grace that saves.  Paul is not talking about the present moment but salvation on a grander scale, of that time when all will be welcomed to the heavenly banquet.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about the heavenly banquet on a daily basis.  Rather, every day it is myself I need to be saved from, from my pettiness, my ego, my wants and wishes, my propensity for procrastination, my snarky attitude while driving.

Ultimately, the spiritual practice that saves us is love:  love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.  Ours is a ministry of love.  Author Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, says it well, about following Jesus and his ministry of love:

“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point:  ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not.  If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life.  Follow me nevertheless.  Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”

This is the Jesus I follow, the ministry that gives me joy, the grace that sustains me, the Church I serve.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Maybe. May be.

It's difficult to write about many things when there's one thing struggling to be heard.  As poet Ellen Bass once instructed a bunch of us burgeoning poets, "You have to write the poems you don't want to write before you can write the ones you do want to write.  Otherwise, they'll all have to crawl over the ones sitting like a lump in the back of your throat."  Or words to that effect.

So...I haven't been writing much of anything because of one true thing (thank you, Anna Quindlen) that needs to be said.

I am grieving.  I thought it would nice to have a rest from parish ministry for a few months (no telling when they will end), but all I feel is sad and angry...what most folks call depressed.  I didn't just go from 90 mph to nothing; I parked the car in the garage, put an old parachute over it, and tucked the keys in a drawer.  Yes, I've done some things this summer I would not have done had I been working:  I went to South Dakota on a mission trip with my Monroe peeps to an Indian reservation with Simply Smiles; I co-deaned a conference for twenty 5th and 6th graders at Silver Lake Conference Center with my friend and pastor Jennifer Gingras entitled "Clowns for God"; I traveled to Costa Rica for a week-long adventure with my family.  I'm teaching myself how to play the Native American wood flute.  I'm working on a clay sculpture at the high school that will serve as a Communion set in some future ministry setting.

But it's not enough.  This November I will be celebrating 20 years of ordination; 15 of those years have been in temporary ministry positions.  I want to settle down with a congregation and see what that feels like.  Ever since I left full-time ministry to be home with my girls (which I have never regretted for an instant, for which I am immensely grateful) I have also been grieving the loss of that ministry.  And please do not attempt in the comments to mollify that emotion or to help me realize the blessing of being able to stay home with my children.  I know that.  I've heard all of that for the past 15 years.  What seems to be beyond understanding is how something so wonderful can also be a source of pain; how a life with God can be life-giving and be a struggle, that God can be the one thing that saves you and the biggest question mark of your life.  A life with God, like any other relationship, is complex and sometimes there are no answers--not even a 'yes' or 'no' as whether or not to stick with it.  Most days it's a 'maybe', which might turn out to be the most faithful answer we can give.

I've written my profile.  I've received all my written references and I've submitted my profile as 'complete' to the UCC Profile Office in Cleveland.  I've decided that despite everything, perhaps because of everything, that I need to do this:  I need to love and to serve and to make it my life's work.  And I think I'm good at it, at least, as far as I've gotten to this point, and I still have a long way to go.  But it is a calling I can't let go of and that won't let go of me, even if I wanted it to; a heartstring that does not break when stretched but only keeps pulling.

Tricky part is...my husband feels called to work in the solar field, research and design specifically.  This is the other reason I have kept myself temporary and loose; so that when he finds that dream job we can pick up and go.  But for one reason or another he has not been able to find that job.  And he's paid just enough at  his current job to make it difficult to consider leaving, even though he's miserable there.  It would be easier having him lead the way since he has the higher earning potential.  But I can't wait any longer.  Four years ago he earned another Master's degree, in computer and electrical engineering, that took three years to finish.  Another temporary ministry gig for me and I just might go the way of John the Baptist.

Prayers, people, I need prayers.  Big ones, small ones, one word of hope.  Strike a match, hold a vigil of candles, a campfire in the backyard, a bonfire on the beach.  Bring them all together to make this light big, that a faith community in need of a pastor like me might see it, that I might go to where they are.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A chance for world peace

This past Saturday I took my youngest daughter to a Yankees' game in New York.  If you know where I grew up, you know this is quite a feat.  I'm from the South Shore of Massachusetts.  My mother took me to Red Sox games during the days of Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans, Dennis Eckersley, Wade Boggs and Bob Stanley.  I have "lived and died with the Sox", as they say, for most of my life.

So for me to take my daughter to a Yankees' game is no small thing.  And yet I did it because my love for my daughter is much, much greater than my love for my Boston Red Sox.  I wore my Red Sox cap and proudly escorted my daughter into Yankee Stadium on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon. 

I had decided ahead of time that I would ignore jeers and taunts but would welcome any questions about my choice of hats.  As it happened, I heard only two of the former and received but one question--from a woman sitting in front of me:  "So, why the Red Sox cap?"  We had already made exchanges about the game; now she was ready to satisfy her curiosity.

I replied that I was making an effort toward world peace.  If I, a Red Sox fan, can take my Yankees' daughter to a Yankees' home game and cheer them on, then there's hope for the world.  After that declaration, she and the man seated next to her spent the next several minutes trying to figure out what I did for a living.  At first they were convinced I was a teacher--not bad for a first guess.  Of course, after that they didn't get any closer; the man even paid me a backhanded compliment with "a swimsuit model"!  I replied that I do that in my spare time.

When I finally confessed that I was an ordained minister, the woman, who was Roman Catholic, said to me, "You have to go to school for that?"  (When they were guessing, I had said that I went to college and grad school.)  I explained, yeah, we have to learn all that church history, Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, systematic theology, etc., just like a priest would.  In return, she gave me a blank look.  Oh well.

So now I had my ally in the bleachers in case anyone gave me a hard time.  By the way, Boston fans, Yankee fans aren't half so rabid as you might think.  Although if I had worn the cap to a Yankees'/Red Sox game in New York, perhaps they wouldn't have been so forbearing!

It was a great game and a wonderful time with my daughter.  Here's recap of the game:

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Mid-August Lunch (2008)

The need for connection, conversation, good food, and good wine never leaves us. At least, I hope so. Wouldn't it be wonderful if as we age, we could live in small groups, cared for by one or two individuals, who would cook delicious food for us, look after us and keep us comfortable and safe? There's a time when we all need more care than what our families can provide, and that's alright. But before that, we're capable of still living a life that gives great joy.

Mid-August Lunch is a delightful movie, a slice-of-life story about Gianni and his mother and the three unfamiliar Italian mamas (one is an 'auntie) who come to spend the weekend during the Italian summer holiday Pranzo di Ferragosto or mid-August lunch. Gianni Di Gregorio, who directs the film, stars as the mother-doting son who takes life as it comes, as slowly as he can enjoy it. While watching the film I got the feeling of some friends who got together to tell a simple yet entertaining story.

I should be so lucky at the age of 80 or more to spend the month of August in Rome, eating a meal cooked by someone like Gianni. Ciao, bello!

Monday, June 13, 2011


Genesis 12: 1-9; Acts 2: 1-21
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
June 12, 2011 – Pentecost Sunday

(After 2+ years this church found its settled pastor, who will begin in August. I chose to leave now to spend the summer with my husband and daughters and to give the congregation both an opportunity to self-govern for a while and to open some space between myself and the new pastor. This was my last sermon to the Woodmont congregation.)

Some of you may remember that on my first Sunday here I said that as an interim pastor I would operate rather like Nanny McPhee. I quoted these words: “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I must leave.” The first statement makes it difficult to stay, the last more difficult to leave. But both accurately describe the transition a congregation goes through during the interim process. More than that, both statements describe a life of faith; a life lived in community with God.

Living with God means a life of comings and goings. It may look like we’re staying put for a while, but actually God is always getting us ready for the next adventure. Like a garden or a forest or an ocean or a galaxy, there’s a lot going on that we don’t always see but things are changing and moving nonetheless. Everything, everything is on its way to somewhere else—constantly—always moving, always changing. It only looks like we’re standing still because time seems to move so slowly. The universe is about 15 billion years old and it’s still evolving, still growing, and our knowledge of it still expanding.

Yet when we look back on our lives, a speck of years in the span of existence, it seems all of it has occurred in the blink of an eye. How quickly these past two years have gone by and yet while we were in the middle of it, didn’t it seem like this day was so far away? Inevitably leaving is part of the plan, at some point in time, in whatever way. Eventually we all leave what is known and go into the unknown.

When God told as then Abram and Sarai to “go”, God wasn’t telling them to go so much as to leave. Leave behind all their family, their familiar fertile land in Sumer, in the delta of the Euphrates; leave behind the inheritance of his father’s land for a land that God would show them, a unfamiliar place, a land in which they would be strangers.

For many of us this is not good news. Leave? Just because God said so? Leave for a place far away, with no idea what it will be like, giving absolute trust to a God who only a few chapters back destroyed almost all of creation and humankind with a flood, then scattered a burgeoning human race by confusing their language.

But now God makes promises of blessing and descendants to Abram, and God makes good on those promises. We see the relationship between God and human beings change and grow. However we know nothing about Abram, about what kind of man he is. When God last singled out a human being for a special calling, which was Noah, we read that he was a good man, a man of integrity in his community and that he ‘walked with God’. But we have no such recommendations for Abram. Perhaps he was simply in the right place at the right time.

And so Abram, at the age of 75, leaves everything he knows, taking with him his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, all his possessions, animals and slaves and sets out for the land of Canaan. And he doesn’t make the journey in one huge push but goes in stages: one step, one day at a time. Ever since then, God’s people have been on the move, whether for survival or exile or to return home or to leave once more.

Even in the Pentecost story we get the unmistakable feeling that everything is changing for the disciples. Jesus has been raised from the dead and has has ascended into heaven. They have gathered together as Jesus taught them but then suddenly there is a gust of wind and flame. Whenever a wind blows through, when flames are burning, nothing is ever the same as it was. It would have been comical, almost comforting if they had been drunk on wine instead of filled with the Holy Spirit. Instead we have a group of disciples who are now compelled to preach, to tell the story of Jesus, their story—to anyone who will listen.

Even more than that, they can now speak to anyone in their own language—yet another sign that soon they will be leaving their beloved Jerusalem, their families, the inheritance of their fathers and mothers, their faith tradition as they had always known it, and go to the foreign lands of the gentiles.

In Jewish tradition the day of Pentecost is a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses 50 days after the exodus. Now God is giving another set of marching orders so transformative that they cannot be denied. And yet we’ve all done our best, from time to time, to keep this story quiet, as fascinating as it is to us, even though, perhaps even because, it has the power to change the way we live our lives. We may resist the movement of the Spirit but sooner or later we’re going to have to leave what is known and venture into the unknown. Leaving, whether physically or spiritually, is how we grow.

Woodmont UCC, the story of Jesus living in you, your story is on the move. It always has been and always will be. The wind blows where it will and on you will go. Today you are opening a door and crossing a threshold to a world, a place yet unknown. As the good doctor once said (and I’ve edited this a bit):

“The Holy Spirit is upon you!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And with Jesus in your heart, YOU are the ones who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’ve got too much heart to think any street is a not-so-good street.

And who knows? God may not go down any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, God will probably call you to head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy and gutsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And the holy church gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a church lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How many angels on the head of a pin?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up their mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across a weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for the budget to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for a committee-free night or waiting, perhaps, for enough money or a pot to boil, or a few more members or a string of pearls, or a pastor who wears pants (perhaps you’ve had enough of girls!), or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll move beyond all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where the Worshiping Musicians are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you were made to fly!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are Fall Fairs to be chaired. There are races to be run. And the miraculous things you can do with God’s call will make you the church-iest church of all. Glory to God! You’ll be as amazing as grace can be, with the whole wide world watching you sing! Glory be!

Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll have lonely times too. Things you can’t do ‘cause you’ll work against you.

All Alone!

Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll resist quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though the powers that be growl. On you will go though your sinking hearts howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems with God as your North Star.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with some mighty strange birds as you go. So be sure to speak up when you speak. Speak with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And when you dance, always forgive when someone mixes up your right foot with their left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(One hundred six and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

Folks, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Barrieau or Burrows or Bray or Bob, Jason, George, Eric, Frank, olĂ©!
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wealth inequality

This method was used in the 1980's to illustrate the excesses of nuclear stockpiles in the US and the then USSR. I can remember a church member involved in the anti-proliferation movement dropping BB's into a galvanized garbage can. And yeah, you couldn't even hear a BB drop when he was done. Too much is way too much.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

And their eyes were opened

Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19
Luke 24: 13-35
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
May 8, 2011 - Mother's Day

Last week we laughed because of the resurrection; this week we wept.

I didn't preach a sermon this past Mother's Day. Instead we put aside the usual agenda to help one family in their grief for a baby that died 20 years ago, that was never named, that was not laid to rest.

In the place where the sermon would go, after the scripture readings, the youth message and a hymn (At the Font We Start Our Journey), I began the liturgy for baptism with the words from the gospel of Mark:
"People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, 'Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."
We prayed, blessed the water, and the parents named the child Matthew. I then poured water over their hands, baptizing Matthew in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Mother of us all.

The congregation stood and welcomed this child into their midst as a member of the church. We prayed that this child would receive the new life given in Christ. And then we remembered this child, Matthew. We re-membered him, realizing his absence but also now his memory in this church family. The mother stood and told the story of his birth, how he would not survive long after, that she was unconscious and had never really embraced nor fully mourned her son. She wanted to name him Matthew because that was the gospel through which she came to know the Bible as an adult.

I talked about the journey to Emmaus, that it not until that time and in that place that these disciples were able to see the risen Christ, and that now this family was able to see the risen Christ in their midst for having been a part of this faith community, in this time, in this place. Then we prayed for Matthew's spirit and for our spirits too.

At the words of commendation (Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Matthew. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a son of your own redeeming. Receive Matthew into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace) I could no longer hold it together. My voice broke on the word 'son' and I finished the prayer with tears slipping down my cheeks. It was the first memorial service I had ever done for a child, and I don't think it made any difference that there was no small casket and that he had died 20 years ago. It certainly didn't for his parents or for the congregation.

After a blessing, before we began the Prayers of the Church, I said, "That felt good. It felt good to do that." And then: "God is good." The congregation responded "All the time." And I said, "And all the time..." they replied, "God is good."

It was a good Mother's Day.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The church improvisational

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02

John 20: 19-31
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
May 1, 2011 – Holy Humor/Bright Sunday

Recently I read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, recalling her days as a member of the Second City improv theater in Chicago. Did you know that there are rules for doing improvisational comedy? You wouldn’t think so to look at it. There’s no scenery, no props, and no script; it’s just made up as the actors go along.

Even though the Christian faith has a script (holy scriptures—what we call the Bible), some fabulous scenery (the whole of creation and the living of our lives), and a few props (the cross, bread, juice, the waters of baptism), the religious establishment is sometimes accused of making it up as it goes along. Indeed there are some tenets of Christian doctrine that seem as though they were conjured from the human imagination: original sin, the virgin birth, even the resurrection. For hundreds of years there have been rules about what is orthodox belief and what is heresy; rules about what makes a faith community the Church rather than just a social club.

Thankfully church life has loosened up some over the years. Indeed there are some who would say it has loosened up too much. In the United Church of Christ there are no tests of faith, no creeds we must adhere to. We recognize that everyone is on a journey of faith, that every relationship with God and with the church is unique. Yet there is also an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to Jesus and his disciples and it is this faith and this community that we strive to emulate.

If I didn’t know any better, from this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, I’d think that Jesus knew the rules of improvisational comedy. Not that he or Thomas are trying to be funny but according to Tina Fey, they are following the rules. The rules of improv are also pretty good for what it means to be the church.

1. The first rule is to agree, to say yes to whatever is being created. So if your partner says “Freeze, I have a water pistol,” you can’t reply with “No, it’s not. It’s your finger,” then the scene has come to a stop rather than going on. This rule reminds us to keep an open mind to what is going on around us. Thomas is not yet ready to keep an open mind about this risen Christ. He demands to see Jesus’ wounds and to place his hand in his side. Jesus doesn’t say, “Resurrection isn’t about the body” or “Get your filthy hands off me”. Instead he says yes to Thomas and the scene continues.

2. The second rule to is to add something of your own, to say ‘yes, and’, to agree but to also go on with what has been handed to you. If I say, “Gee, it sure is humid,” and you say, “Yeah…”, then there’s really no where to go. But if you say, “What do you expect from living inside a giant rice cooker?” or “Yeah, it’s so humid even my wrinkles can’t hold out” or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into the belly of a whale”, then we’ve got somewhere to go. When Jesus says to Thomas ‘put your hand in my side’, Thomas doesn’t say “Eew, yuck! No, thanks!” Rather, he adds his ‘yes, and’, his confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

3. The next rule is to make statements. If we ask questions all the time, we put pressure on our partner to come up with all the answers. If we point out all the obstacles, it then becomes up to our partner to solve them. Whatever the difficulty is, we need to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem. Jesus asks Thomas a question but he follows it with the answer, making a declarative statement: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Not having seen Jesus in the flesh presents a problem of faith: how are we to believe if we have not seen? Jesus reminds us that faith is not about what is certain but what is uncertain. Improvising is all about uncertainty and not knowing what is going to happen next.

4. Finally, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Thomas wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples: rather than a mistake it was an opportunity for Jesus to teach and to help his friends understand what it means to believe and to be in community with those who may have doubts. Jesus and the disciples could have chastised Thomas for missing out the first time. Instead we have a beautifully improvised scene in which those who doubt are included and we receive the blessing of the words “come to believe”, illustrating that faith and living in community are not a place to arrive at but a journey, a process, an improvisation.

(After this point, members of the congregation took turns telling those religious jokes we get in our email--and some I'd never heard before. I should say that up until I preached the sermon I was wearing a squid hat, borrowed from my daughter's friend at school. It became too heavy to wear, at which point I took it off to reveal the tiara I was wearing underneath. It was also Communion Sunday, so we had milk and 'Nilla wafers by intinction!)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jesus, Mary and joy

Mary at the Tomb, by Lisa Hornor

John 20: 1-20
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 24, 2011 – Easter Sunday

Have you ever heard the joke “What do you get when you play a country song backwards?” Well, you may have even heard the answer in Rascal Flatts’ song “Backwards”:

If the resurrection was like a country music song played backwards, it might sound something like this:

I was sittin’ in an upper room
Oh so far away from Galilee
When this beloved disciple walked in
And sat right down next to me
I could tell he’d seen some hard times
There were tear stains on his hairshirt
He said you wanna know what you get
When you play Jesus’ death backwards?

He gets his life back.
She gets her heart back.
The disciples get their teacher back.
The Romans get the thorn in their side back.
The darkness gets the light back.
That heavy stone gets rolled back.
Jesus is king; salvation bring.
The angels sing, sing, sing and the heavens ring
We get the way and the truth and the life and the glory
in which we tell that old, old story
Sounds a little crazy, a little scattered and absurd
but that’s what you get
when you play Jesus’ death backwards

Wouldn’t it be nice, we think sometimes, if we could play our lives backwards? If we could just rewind a few minutes, a few hours, days, weeks, years—back to that time before we did whatever it was? Or before the cancer, before we lost our job? Before the person we loved left us or died, before the fight and the hurtful words, before we lost our temper? Before that moment we were so scared we didn’t know what to do, before that moment we wish we had said or done what was in our hearts?

Regret is a terrible thing. It can paralyze us, make us crazy, and drive us to other actions we may also later regret. I read once that many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves—regret of the past and fear of the future. Even though Jesus was crucified for being fully human and fully God, I doubt he had any regrets about that. He may have been scared and full of sorrow, perhaps even a little relieved, but I don’t think he was regretful.

Regret, by Cyn McCurry

Every Easter we try to make sense out of the resurrection—something that makes no sense at all. And yet we often have difficulty making sense and meaning out of our own lives. What makes us think we can tackle a mystery like the resurrection with any less struggle?

One thing I do know is this: the resurrection is not Jesus’ death played backwards. It’s not our own lives moved back to some restore point before the troubles. The resurrection is a moving forward through the regrets and the fears, through our lives and our inevitable deaths, and doing so with joy.

Sometimes we are tempted to believe that joy is just not possible given the circumstances of our lives. But I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness is fleeting, dependent on whether or not we ate breakfast, what the weather is like, if our body is working right and all kinds of outside influences. Joy is what sustains us despite the conditions of our lives; as the poet Wendell Berry said, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

At the beginning of Lent we read verse 12 of Psalm 51: “Restore to me the joy of my salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.” To me, that says to be joyful is to have a willing spirit. Though Mary had lost not only her best friend but her teacher and savior, she had a willing spirit to stand at the cross while he died, to go where her friend was buried and be persistent in finding him.

If her story was a country song, it might go something like this:

Jesus, Mary and joy
Jesus, Mary and joy
She sang the blues
But he brought Good News
And now she spreading the joy

She was a woman possessed
Jesus healed her
Then she confessed
That Jesus was Lord
He could not afford
To live a life that leads to death

He gave all that he had
Even then it wasn’t all bad
And despite that old cross
They gained what was lost
And now she’s spreading the joy

Jesus, Mary and joy
Jesus, Mary and joy
They both sang the blues
But he brought Good News
And now she’s spreading the joy

Even when we sing the blues
It’s then Jesus gives Good News
And now we’re spreading the joy


Monday, April 11, 2011

Shake, rattle and roll

Skull with Cigarette (1886), Van Gogh

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 10, 2011

(Ezekiel is calling together the dry bones of the desert valley, except that no one is showing up. He and the spine are having a conversation about the reluctance of these bones to return.)

Ezekiel: Where is everybody?

Spine: Well, sir, not everyone is on board with this getting back together thing, this family reunion you’ve got planned.

Ezekiel: It’s not my plan. It’s all God’s idea.

Spine: Apparently so, sir. It seems everyone else has a different idea and has made other plans.

Ezekiel: I thought at least Radius and Ulna would be here – they’re usually ready for anything. Forearmed is forewarned, you know.

Spine: I know, sir, but they’re still out shopping with Tibia, Fibula and Femur.

Ezekiel: Let me guess…this is going to cost me…

Both: An arm and a leg!

Ezekiel: I thought for sure Skull would be here. He’s always head and shoulders above the rest.

Spine: Yes, but he’s been taking this separation on the chin—lost his head about it, I’m afraid. I think it’s affected all the dry bones the same way—taken the life out of them.

Ezekiel: So why are you here?

Spine: Evidently, sir, I’m the only one with enough backbone.

Ezekiel: But see, it’s not about standing before God in fear and trembling. God is going to knit you all together with tendons and cartilage…

Spine: God knows how to knit?!

Ezekiel: …and forgiveness and grace. God’s going to give you muscles for justice and peace, and ears to hear God’s word, and a stomach for the law and the prophets, and a heart of courage and compassion.

Spine: Sir, we dry bones have been apart so long we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live with God and each other. There were times when words like ‘obedience’, ‘surrender’ and ‘covenant’ made us stiff-necked. If you could have only heard the knees creak and groan when they had to kneel…

Ezekiel: God isn’t promising an easy life but rather new life. It’s not about bowing and scraping before God but about dancing in the presence of God, even in the midst of trouble.

Spine: Sir, do we get skin? Please say yes. And could you make it rather thick? With all these hostile takeovers—what with the Babylonians and now the Assyrians breathing down our necks—we tend to bruise easily.

Ezekiel: Yes, God will cover you but you’ll still be vulnerable—it’s really the only way to be compassionate.

Spine: Okay, so God will put us all back together again—make a body of us again. Is that it? Do we just stand there?

Ezekiel: Didn’t you hear me? I said dancing. I said new life. Weren’t you paying attention? You’ve got a lot of nerve!

Spine: If you’ll recall, I haven’t got any nerves right now!

Ezekiel: Oops! Sorry.

Spine: So just how is God going to accomplish this new life?

Ezekiel: God will put the Spirit, the breath of life into you. You think that it only happened once, back in the beginning? We may all be dust and to dust we shall return yet God will not leave us hopeless. God is always ready to breathe new life into us.

Spine: Great, just as long as God remembers to use Altoids!

Ezekiel: Hey, don’t complain! Anything smells better than a bunch of dead, dry bones coming out of their graves!

Spine: Okay, okay! Keep your hairshirt on! So, let’s get this party started!

Ezekiel: May I have the first dance?

Spine: As soon as I get my feet under me!

Watch the crowd and how it moves to the music, how everyone comes to life as the music begins.